NOTES FROM SAM: CLARINETITIS

clarinetThat’s Leroy (Sam) Parkins, musician, man of letters, raconteur, observer, and frequent contributor to this blog — for which I am most grateful.

The Benny Goodman Festival on WKCR hit home. Remember that the Camel Caravan in ca. ’36, which I listened to because my brother, little knowing what he was doing, pinched me to keep me awake “This is important” quoth he, did me in. So when I got going as a true dixieland player I tried to kill off both my fathers – Benny, and Leon Russianoff, teacher to the stars – like the clarinet section of the NY Phil and the La. Phil, Bob Wilber, who sent me to him – and Jimmy Hamilton*.

I shamelessly worked on a rotten** sound like Johnny Dodds, worshipped Pee Wee*** and Lester Young’s metal clarinet ( a Selmer – I have one). And eschewed Benny – until a few years ago, when said brother sent me tapes of late Mel Powell/Red Norvo sessions, which knocked me out. “Hey – I don’t have to kill off my fathers any more” {my records from the early 60s, when I was just finishing up with Russianoff show a superb, utterly boring clarinet sound}.

With this damned festival I got a bunch of small band records and the classical stuff I didn’t re-issue myself – Columbia – Bartok, Copland**** etc. Plus what I did re-issue at RCA – Nielsen, von Weber etc. And playing along with trios and quartets – I finally figured out how he did it*****. He didn’t tongue. Barefield taught me that years ago but it didn’t occur to me that it translated to clarinet.

**** Copland wrote the concerto for Benny. I’ve heard other great performances, but Benny’s is unique in being almost casual. He doesn’t play it with great care like a full time classical player. In a way he just knocks it off – which means in this case the true human feelings shine through.

* In later years Leon was unhappy about the way Hamilton worked out. Leon, a Goodman worshiper himself, would have liked it better if Hamilton really blew out stronger. But once in awhile – like at Newport…

** In the ear of the behearer. Dodds was and is great.

*** Pee Wee was actually a well schooled clarinetist. Shows in ensemble work with Wild Bill et al. Clean as a weasel. He did what he did because he meant to. The first modern jazz player.

***** It helps immeasurably to have a totally accurate, hard charging rhythm section at hand. Playing along with, say, Mel Powell and Dave Tough, you CANNOT go off the rails. Hard to find if at all now.

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3 responses to “NOTES FROM SAM: CLARINETITIS

  1. sam parkins

    I should add that there was a crucial moment in 1943 or so that opened doors that who could have known existed: Micky Markell, guru af all things jazz at Brookline High School, invited me to go to a Sunday afternoon jazz event at the Glass Hat, a club behind Mass. Station on Newbury St. The band in residence was: Frankie Newton, trumpet, Edmund Hall, clarinet, Vic Dickenson, trbn., Buzzy Drootin, drums, John Field, bass, and the slightly odd Joe Battaglia on piano (He used to sing – “I hate to see/my only son go down…”). Ed Hall showed a new way of doing business, and both he and Frankie Newton came back for long stays at the Savoy. So the Goodman who had me thrall all those years was weakened…

    and while we’re here, a Frankie Newton tale: He was in the Savoy with a quartet for weeks at a time, and I went when I could. One night Dickie Wells came in, unshipped his horn and climbed up on the bandstand. Newton reached under his stand, pulled out his bass cornet with a bell like a french horn and proceeded to carve up Dickie Wells six ways. They wouldn’t stop – a real down home cutting session. Stayed on the stand for an hour and a half…sp

  2. sam parkins

    And a poignant B.G./Russianoff moment: In the early 50s Benny went off to England to study with Reginald Kell, clarinetist for Beecham’s LSO and champion of playing double lip (top lip rather than the usual top teeth on the mouthpiece*). I’m a Kell fan simply because outside of his lovely sound he had the balls to play classical clarinet with vibrato in the 30s, when it was an absolute no-no. Benny was roundly criticized for what was perceived as a wimpy sound when he got back. Me? Who would want to be a superstar for 25 years without growing? More power to him. But Benny wasn’t satisfied. Leon Russianoff told me that Benny came to him for lessons after the Kell period: “I could have helped him but he intimidated me too much. I couldn’t do it…”

    *I’ve been playing double lip – an oboe embouchure – since 1993. Does wonders – makes you breathe right automatically…sp

  3. It is with sadness that I tell you that Leroy “Sam” Parkins died yesterday. He was 83 and was in Israel visiting a friend.

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